In a few days, Cloud Atlas makes its cinema debut. So now’s a great time to take another look at the book the film was based on.
Cloud Atlas was David Mitchell’s third novel. Originally published in 2004, at the time it was his most ambitious work. It could be argued that it remains so, with its complex Russian doll structure.
The story begins conventionally enough. We believe we are reading a historical novel as we follow the exploits of one Adam Ewing aboard a sailing ship in the south pacific. I’ll happily admit that for me, the opening was a little on the slow side, something I have found with other Mitchell books. Even so, the sumptuous language makes those initial pages a pleasure to read.
Then very suddenly, and quite without warning, the story stops mid-sentence. We are immediately plunged headfirst into a new world and a new time — the Chateau of Zedelghem in the 1930s. I don’t want to give away too much of the book, so let me simply say that this story too is also broken off while in full swing.
By the time we commence the third story we begin to understand what is happening. Mitchell has cleverly and intricately weaved one story inside another, itself inside another. In fact there are six stories layered in this way. As we progress, the narratives jump forwards in time to the far future, and ultimately to a post apocalyptic world. This sixth and final text is the only one of the six to be recounted in its entirety without pause.
From the conclusion of this final story we begin to zoom out again, returning to the fifth story from the very moment it broke off. That story ends satisfyingly, and we return to the fourth, and so on, working our way backwards through the novel.
There is much more than just clever interwoven plots going on here though. The characters themselves echo throughout the book, turning up again and again in different guises. There is more than a strong hint of reincarnation, just one of the books many themes.
Another theme is that of control and entrapment. Most of the protagonists find themselves somehow trapped. They are seeking a way out — of a situation or a place.
The book works on many levels. The stories themselves are beautiful and engaging. The language is, typically of wordsmith Mitchell, exquisite. Each sub-work finds its own unique voice, but Mitchell’s style is ever present. The themes explored are as vast as the scope of the work.
Cloud Atlas is one of those rare books you can read many times, and upon each reading discover something entirely new. It is breathtakingly bold and ambitious, yet at the same time it is intimate and delicate. Individually, the stories stay with you a long time. Collectively, the work is one that you will never forget.
Review by Hamish Dowell